The only difference between the Capitals now-reeling at 2-6-1-and the Capitals a few years ago after being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs following a Presidents’ Trophy season, is the perception of them as winners and losers. Just last year, the Washington Capitals were still on the Cup contenders short list despite failing to advance passed the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Now, I think most hockey people would consider the Caps lucky if they make the playoffs in 2013. Through these somewhat successful seasons and epic collapses the last three years, there have been coaching and roster changes but the losing trend has continued.
The Capitals’ Rock the Red era peaked in January 2010. I wrote about it shortly before Bruce Boudreau was fired in November 2011. Alex Ovechkin was named captain in January of 2010 as the Caps were surging towards their first ever Presidents’ Trophy as the best regular season team. Since that time, the team seemed to devolve as a contender for championships in the NHL. While they still finished as the best team in the NHL and set many statistical records, the Caps stumbled late in the season and were then bounced from the playoffs by Montreal. Granted, the Canadiens were riding a red-hot Jaroslav Halak. However, many of the Caps’ special teams problems in recent seasons started in that seven game series and were the difference in that Conference Quarterfinals series with Montreal. The Capitals failed to prevent the Canadiens power play from scoring and couldn’t muster more than one power play goal for in 33 opportunities. The entire team appeared to slump in the scoring department when it mattered in the playoffs and the calls for better defense were deafening.
To start the 2010-2011 season, the Caps looked to build on previous regular season success and make a legitimate Cup run. While the Capitals offense seemed to start well, they slumped again heading into the Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins. To make up for the lack of scoring, Bruce Boudreau tried to install a defense-first system. I guess the idea was to prevent other teams from scoring if the Caps were not going to score goals. We all saw the losing streak from the inside out on the HBO 24/7 series. When the team finally bought in to the new system, the Caps found some success and captured the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals retired the New York Rangers in five games to face a division rival, Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Semifinals. In the Rangers series, the Blueshirts struggled to score against the newly defensive Washington Capitals. The Lightning found the key to beating the system. Effort. Quite simply, they outworked the Caps every on the ice, all the time, for the four game sweep.
The Caps opened the first seven games of the 2011-2012 season with a perfect 7-0 record. Free agent signings like Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward were paying off in the secondary scoring department. They were beating talented Penguins, Flyers, and Red Wings rosters and seemed to progress while doing so. By the middle of November, they were dropping games like a 7-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Boudreau was fired in favor of Dale Hunter. The former Caps captain and fan favorite brought yet another defense-first system to the Caps. It was moderately successful and the offense continued to struggle as the reigns were kept tight on Ovi and his cohorts. The Capitals made the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. In a thrilling seven game series against defending Stanley Cup champions-the Boston Bruins-Hunter’s strategy and the Caps’ execution seemed to fall into place. The Caps had Braden Holtby playing out of his mind in net and the second best penalty kill in the playoffs (91.3% effective) heading into their second round series with the New York Rangers. Popular opinion held the Caps in high regard as a team that had evolved to take “the next step”. The series went the distance in classic fashion. In the end, the Capitals offensive stars could not score in game seven and the Caps went home after yet another second round series loss.
After three years of small improvements and huge setbacks, reality has finally set in during the beginning of the lockout shortened, 2013 season. The Washington Capitals are not a good hockey organization. As fans, we are witnessing the failure of special teams to win games that lost the series against Montreal; we are screaming at the general lack of on-ice effort that was swept by the Bolts; and we are frustrated to see yet another coach in Adam Oates forcing his system on a roster that is not suited to it or at least hasn’t bought-in yet. These problems have festered for three years under the management of George McPhee as authorized by majority owner, Ted Leonsis. As mentioned on this site before, the organization does not seem to run in a way that results in consistent on-ice success. The organization makes excuses for continued disappointment. Excuses like injuries, bad luck, bad match-ups, and a general, “almost is good enough as along as the Verizon Center sells out” attitude, contribute to the losing hockey culture in the Caps organization. The only way the Washington Capitals will win a Stanley Cup is by not accepting those excuses for losses. It will take personnel changes throughout the organization, from the ice to the front office. It will likely take years for real improvements to take effect in games. Winners don’t make excuses. When will the Washington Capitals stop making them and address the issues that have stagnated the progress of the organization?